By Gianna Addario
---- — BOSTON— In tournament basketball everything matters.
That is at least what Danvers head coach John Walsh tells his reigning Division 3 state champion team. Nobody understands that sentiment more than the starting four seniors captains on this year’s team.
With their backs against the wall and three different lead changes in the final quarter of yesterday’s state semifinal contest against Martha’s Vineyard, Eric Martin, Nick McKenna, Danny Connors and Nick Bates gutted out the win for the Falcons. And for the second straight season, Danvers is headed back to Worcester’s DCU Center for a chance at yet another state title.
”Coach tells us every day at practice that every play matters,” said Connors. “I guess we play the game with that in the back of our minds, even in the final minute.”
Connors hit two clutch free throws with under two minutes to play to give Danvers a two point-lead, then grabbed a much needed defensive rebound on the other end.
”This game came down to the wire and if you don’t make those plays or get those rebounds, the other team could possibly take the lead and it turns out to be a completely different game,” Connors said.
“We’re used to playing on a big stage like this. Last year’s experience definitely helps our confidence late in the game.”
Danvers’ preparation in practice also pays off when it’s trying to close out a tight win.
“It pretty much starts in practice,” Martin said. “We never take days off and go light. Every day is hard and we go at each other.”
The Falcons (23-2) shot just 52 percent from the free throw line, but perhaps no attempt was more pivotal than McKenna’s final two shots from the line. With Danvers leading by one point with 5.8 seconds left to play, the Falcons managed to get the ball in McKenna’s hands on the inbound pass. McKenna, who went 4-for-6 from the line prior to the final two shots, sank the pair to ice the win for Danvers.
“That was a designed play to get me the ball,” McKenna said of Danvers’ final possession. “We all love the pressure. We play basketball because we love those last second shots and the big time pressure. You can’t let it wear on you, you just have to make a free throw like you have so many times before.
The Falcons got crushed by Martha’s Vineyard on the glass in the first half. Danvers went to the locker room with the game tied at 24, due in large part to the Vineyarders’ ability on the offensive glass.
Rebounding was clearly a major focal point of Walsh’s halftime adjustments.
“We ended up just assigning certain people (to box out) because it seemed they had certain kids in and around the hoop killing us on the glass. We assigned box outs and had Danny Connors go find Navardo Anderson and just let Nick Bates float free and rebound at the rim,” Walsh said. “That was the only way we were going to rebound. Then we also said, and it happened quite often, if you can’t get the rebound, just smash it out. Danny must have done that four or five times.”
Bates was a monster on the glass, grabbing 17 boards, many of which came after halftime.
Danvers has won 10 straight tournament games dating back to last season. The win tonight puts them at 19-19 in the tournament all-time.
The Falcon’s have already won as many tournament games as they did last year (five), tying for most wins in a single postseason and have a chance to extend that milestone providing a victory on Saturday.
Before Walsh started coaching in 2011, Danvers had never won more than one tournament game in a season. Walsh’s postseason record is 12-1.
Junior Kieran Beck might have logged just two minutes of play, but made every second that he was out there count.
After a missed Danvers’ field goal attempt late in the fourth quarter, Beck pulled down an offensive rebound, which transitioned into points for the Falcons.
“I didn’t realize how big that rebound was, but now thinking back on it, it was huge,” Beck said of his big-time play in the final minute of play. “It reset the shot clock for us and gave us an extra 30 seconds to score.”
Those are the types of plays that make this Danvers team so good. And effort like Beck’s is not lost on the starters.
“To stay focused in the game without touching the court, that’s very impressive. I know I couldn’t do that coming into the game that late. I was very impressed with him,” Martin said about Beck. “He got that rebound and that probably melted 20-30 more seconds off the clock. I don’t know if I shot the jump shot after that but that took time off the clock and I can’t say enough good things about what he came in and did.”